Apparent computer overload sent stocks plunging

The glitch that sent markets tumbling Thursday was years in the making, driven by the rise of computers that transformed stock trading more in the last 20 years than in the previous 200.

The old system of floor traders matching buyers and sellers has been replaced by machines that process trades automatically, speeding the flow of buy and sell orders but also sometimes facilitating the kind of unexplained volatility that roiled markets Thursday.

“We have a market that responds in milliseconds, but the humans monitoring respond in minutes, and unfortunately billions of dollars of damage can occur in the meantime,” said James Angel…

In recent years, what is known as high-frequency trading — rapid automated buying and selling — has taken off and now accounts for 50 to 75 percent of daily trading volume. At the same time, new electronic exchanges have taken over much of the volume that used to be handled by the New York Stock Exchange.

In fact, more than 60 percent of trading in stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange takes place on separate computerized exchanges.

Many questions were left unanswered even hours after the end of the trading day. Who or what was the culprit? Why did markets spin out of control so rapidly? What needs to be done to prevent this from happening again..?

One official said they identified “a huge, anomalous, unexplained surge in selling, it looks like in Chicago,” about 2:45 p.m. The source remained unknown, but that jolt apparently set off trading based on computer algorithms, which in turn rippled across indexes and spiraled out of control.

Many firms have computers that are programmed to automatically place buy or sell orders based on a variety of things that happen in the markets. Some of the simplest triggers are set off when a stock drops or rises a certain percent in the trading day, or when an index moves a specific amount.

But these orders can have a cascading effect. For example, if enough programs place sell orders when the overall market is down, say, 4 percent in a single day, those orders could push the market down even more — and set off programs that do not kick in until the market is down 5 percent, which in turn can have the effect of pushing stocks down even more…

“There was no pricing mechanism,” Dermott Clancy said. “There was nothing. No one knew what anything was worth. You didn’t know where to buy a stock or sell a stock.”

And most of the trades made during that enormous network fart – have been invalidated – whether they were opportunist, programmed or made by individual choice.

You’re not in (Topeka) Kansas, anymore – you’re in GOOGLE

There’s a “Wizard of Oz” joke to be made here: The city of Topeka, Kansas has unofficially changed its name to “Google” in an attempt to get on the Mountain View tech giant’s radar as a test bed for new fiber-optic technology that would bring it Internet connections at top speed.

The Topeka Capital-Journal wrote that Mayor Bill Bunten signed a proclamation Monday that designates the town as “Google” for the duration of March, in an attempt to make it a more palatable choice for a test market than some of the other cities in the running–like Grand Rapids, Mich., and Baton Rouge, La. It’s not intended to be as permanent as the Oregon town that actually renamed itself in exchange for some cash, free stuff, and mockery.

The town can’t legally change its name if it intends to change it back, and then there’s the fact that Google owns all sorts of intellectual property pertaining to its brand name. But the Capital-Journal says that there is technically no legal barrier to the issuance of a proclamation gently encouraging people to refer to Topeka as “Google.” You know, it’s sort of like when you’re a little kid and you wish your name were cooler so you start telling everyone to call you by a new one of your choice, and the blitheness of childhood prevents you from noticing the smirks that ensue every time you politely ask an adult to start referring to you as “Jethro Skywalker…”

But hey, if this campaign actually gets the city a super-fast Internet connection, I’ll stop laughing.

Folks outside New Mexico may not know about it; but, the fashion of changing a town’s name for fun and profit got it’s first real boost here.

Next time you’re driving south from Albuquerque down to the new SpacePort outside Las Cruces, stop and have lunch in the town that was called Hot Springs up till it won Ralph Edwards’ 1950 radio contest. When it became Truth or Consequences, NM.

How much will Google’s fiber network cost? And why build it?

Google has announced an audacious plan to build what is essentially the most cutting-edge broadband network in the United States. While it is being mis-portrayed in certain segments of the media as an ISP effort, in reality it is nothing more than an experimental network, much like Google’s early efforts to provide municipal Wi-Fi in the city of Mountain View, Calif. It will be a trial-only network, not Google’s entry into telecommunications services. Google’s planned network won’t be cheap, but in the end it is worth the price.

The idea behind the network: provide bandwidth and see if it fosters new user behavior and thus innovations. I admire Google for creating a real-life laboratory that will provide intelligence to predict not only the future of the web, but also help it develop new products to stay relevant. By announcing this network, Google also showed why it is quite distinct from its onetime peers such as Yahoo and AOL.

When I said that Google’s plan was audacious, I said so because this is not going to be cheap. For starters, Google wants to offer 1 gigabit per second speeds to about 50,000 to 500,000 people. At 2.6 people per household, that roughly translates to between 20,000 to 200,000 homes. Our friend Ben Schachter, Internet analyst with Broadpoint.AmTech, estimates that it will cost Google between $3,000 to $8,000 per home, or roughly $60 million to $ 1.6 billion, depending upon the final size and footprint of the network. If they reach, say, 100,000 homes, it would cost them about half a billion dollars…

Is spending this much money — even for Google, which has about $25 billion in cash — a good idea? I think so: Just as car companies spend their R&D dollars on Formula One Racing teams to get a better idea of what new features could be included in their commercial vehicles, a company such as Google needs to explore the outer limits of broadband.

In addition, “Google has a secondary motivation here and that is to also push the FCC to accelerate its examination of using TV white spaces for wireless broadband,” says Jeff Heyman, Analyst, Broadband and Video for Infonetics Research. He points out that if “Google can make this endeavor successful for a number of communities, why couldn’t they do so for even more using white spaces? This FTTH initiative, in other words, could be a proving ground for Google as infrastructure provider.”

Like Om, I’m a bit doubtful that this will ever result in a national or international alternative to the Internet – or Internet2, for that matter.

But, pushing competitors, pushing the government, ain’t ever an unreasonable tactic in accelerating the rate of change in an essentially stodgy and conservative society.

Ciao, GeoCities – Yahoo closing the site today

We always imagined how this might end: GeoCities would finally take down all of the animated “under construction” signs, and we’d hear one last Midi file to the tune of horns playing taps.

Instead, GeoCities will probably go down with a whimper today.

Time is up for Yahoo’s scheduled closing of perhaps the most significant virtual museum in recent history. Years ago a central meeting place for a massive chunk of American Web surfers, GeoCities will lock its doors and take millions of pages offline.

GeoCities allowed anyone to build a custom Web page for free and reserved a small amount of virtual storage to keep pictures and documents. It was perhaps the first mainstream example of an open, participatory and personal Internet.

At the turn of the century, GeoCities was nearly ubiquitous. Fathers created websites about their families; kids created sites about Pokemon; teenage girls created sites about the Backstreet Boys. Practically every facet of culture was documented and thanks to search engines, easily accessible.

All of those documents are about to disappear

The decision to shut down GeoCities rather than keep it around for historical reference and, say, slap ads all over it is curious. Especially when you consider that the network is still among the top 200 most-trafficked sites on the Internet, according to metrics tracker Alexa.

But, then, measured, well-thought-out business decisions is not what you think of when someone says – Yahoo!

DIY paint-on Faraday Cage for your home

Researchers say they have created a special kind of paint which can block out wireless signals.

It means security-conscious wireless users could block their neighbours from being able to access their home network – without having to set up encryption.

Of course, this should read, “in addition to encryption” to keep the Feds from beaming directly into your network.

The paint contains an aluminium-iron oxide which resonates at the same frequency as wi-fi – or other radio waves – meaning the airborne data is absorbed and blocked.

By coating an entire room, signals can’t get in and, crucially, can’t get out.

Developed at the University of Tokyo, the paint could cost as little as £10 per kilogram.

No doubt you can conjure up additional features and benefits.

No doubt.

Researchers using new camera network find rare meteorite


Researchers have discovered an unusual kind of meteorite in the Western Australian desert and have uncovered where in the Solar System it came from, in a very rare finding published today in the journal Science.

Meteorites are the only surviving physical record of the formation of our Solar System and by analysing them researchers can glean valuable information about the conditions that existed when the early Solar System was being formed. However, information about where individual meteorites originated, and how they were moving around the Solar System prior to falling to Earth, is available for only a dozen of around 1100 documented meteorite falls over the past two hundred years.

Dr Phil Bland, the lead author of today’s study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “We are incredibly excited about our new finding. Meteorites are the most analysed rocks on Earth but it’s really rare for us to be able to tell where they came from. Trying to interpret what happened in the early Solar System without knowing where meteorites are from is like trying to interpret the geology of Britain from random rocks dumped in your back yard.”

The new meteorite, which is about the size of cricket ball, is the first to be retrieved since researchers…set up a trial network of cameras in the Nullarbor Desert in Western Australia in 2006.

The researchers aim to use these cameras to find new meteorites, and work out where in the Solar System they came from, by tracking the fireballs that they form in the sky. The new meteorite was found on the first day of searching using the new network, by the first search expedition, within 100m of the predicted site of the fall. This is the first time a meteorite fall has been predicted using only the data from dedicated instruments.

RTFA for the details. Not only about the process of determining the origin of the meteorite – but how they utilized this new camera network. Interesting tale.

Next-gen iPod Touch to gain 80211.n wireless


The next iterations of the iPhone and iPod Touch are likely to have 802.11n wireless radios inside, offering lower power consumption, longer range and faster data rates. More importantly, it will mean that you can hook your handheld up to your n-enabled home network and not slow everything else down.

This news comes from detailed, painstaking and probably tiring study of the 3.0 iPhone firmware, revealing an iPod Touch resource file which shows a change from the current Broadcom BCM4325 wireless chip to the newer BCM4329. This chip also supports Bluetooth and FM radio, although expect this last to be disabled on Apple hardware.

Of course, if the Touch gets 802.11n, the iPhone will almost certainly get it too. This move would put all current Apple hardware on the n specification, a curious fact given the very recent upgrade to the Airport base-stations allowing simultaneous b/g and n networking.

I wish I could get the whole family up to “N” speed. I keep a 2nd router set-up subsidiary to my primary wireless network – just to handle the folks running “G” – even 1 laptop running “B” that shows up visiting once in a while.

That way my AppleTV and MacBook in the living room don’t get hobbled.

AT&T hurrying massive network update for new iPhone launch

AT&T is rushing to rollout a major upgrade to its 3G mobile data service in anticipation of a tenfold increase in network traffic from new iPhone hardware expected to go on sale in June.

Apple’s exclusive mobile service provider in the US has already laid out plans to upgrade its 3G data network on multiple fronts. Last month AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega said in an interview that “we have the infrastructure capability to go to 7.2 [Mbit/s], and we’ll have the capability to go 14.4 and 20 in the next couple of years, so I think there’s coverage we’re going to improve, there’s quality we’re going to improve, and there’s speed that’s also going to get improved.”

The current iPhone 3G only supports a maximum of 3.6 Mbit/s, so AT&T’s plans to achieve the full potential of its current 3GPP Release 5 network technology would require new iPhone hardware to fully exploit. However, the wireless link between the phone and the cell tower is only part of the network speed equasion. Another factor is the speed and capacity of AT&T’s network backbone.

Reports have already indicated that about half of the mobile data traffic AT&T handles is related to the iPhone. Web statistics from Net Applications also show that more than two thirds of all US mobile web data traffic is used by the iPhone, which also makes use of WiFi.

AT&T’s coverage sucks badly enough in critical areas that some folks – like in San Francisco, crucial to the Tech World – are dropping iPhones and going back to Blackberrys.

Not that they’re alone. 3G coverage in my neck of the prairie is non-existent. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, whatever. Either what they offers sucks – or doesn’t exist. Now, that doesn’t hamper me because we don’t have enough people clustered around the capitol end of the state to matter.

But, PR-based stories like this should step aside for a moment and include a little reality.

Network Turns Soldiers’ Helmets Into Sniper Location System

Imagine a platoon of soldiers fighting in a hazardous urban environment who carry personal digital assistants that can display the location of enemy shooters in three dimensions and accurately identify the caliber and type of weapons they are firing.

Engineers at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS) have developed a system that can give soldiers just such an edge by turning their combat helmets into “smart nodes” in a wireless sensor network…

Like several other shooter location systems developed in recent years, the ISIS system relies on the sound waves produced when a high-powered rifle is fired. These acoustic signals have distinctive characteristics that allow the systems to pick them out from other loud noises and track them back to their source. Current systems, however, rely on centralized or stand-alone sensor arrays. This limits their accuracy and restricts them to identifying shooters at line-of-sight locations…

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Albert Sciarretta, who assesses new military technologies in urban environments for DARPA, is one of the experts who is impressed by the ISIS system: “It’s strong points are that it isn’t limited to locating shots fired in direct line-of-sight, it can pick up multiple shooters at the same time, and it can identify the caliber and type of weapon that is being fired…”

Current commercial shooter location systems are extremely expensive, with prices ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 per unit. By contrast, an entire node for the ISIS system weighs only slightly more than the four AA batteries that power it and costs about $1,000 to construct using currently available commercial hardware.

Sounds good to me. DARPA continues to support really interesting research, don’t they?

Texas prison cellphone smuggling widespread

Cellphone-sniffing dog. Har!

Authorities say they are closing in on at least four groups of convicts and their supporters — both inside prison and out — who are believed to have helped smuggle dozens of cell phones into Texas’ death row…

The cell phone that condemned killer Richard Lee Tabler used to call a state senator probably was not his. It’s believed to have been sneaked into the maximum-security Polunsky Unit near Livingston in East Texas by a convict who probably then “brokered” it to Tabler and other inmates for favors and cash.

Instead of the phone being smuggled by a single corrupt guard, as originally thought, investigators now say it and dozens of others might have been put in the hands of Texas’ worst killers by an intricate network of supporters and their families who used code words, fake names, money transfers, prearranged drop sites and even a secret compartment at the bottom of a garbage can to get the phones inside what is supposed to be the most secure part of Texas’ prison system.

You can stop contraband from coming into prisons if you want to,” said Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat whom Tabler threatened. “It may be complicated, but they keep it out of county jails and federal prisons and airports. This is not rocket science…”

Smuggled cell phones have been on the rise in prisons across the country, according to news reports. The phones have been used from inside prison to order a murder of a witness in Maryland, to orchestrate a prison riot in Oklahoma and to arrange drug deals and threaten witnesses in several other states.

Great article with lots of info. Perhaps, now that the country club libertarians no longer have complete control of Congress, a law can be passed permitting prisons to selectively block cellphone communications.

And then there’s the possibility of requiring ID to purchase cellphones and SIM cards? The cellphone manufacturers and all the largest retailers oppose that one as well. Perish the thought a purchase might take an extra minute – for an honest citizen.